How NYC moved the country's largest school district online during the coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Over the past two weeks, teachers, students and parents in NYC have begun using online tools to cope with a new system for remote learning.
  • The country's largest school district is working to distribute internet-connected devices to 300,000 students in need.
  • Teachers are learning to shift their schedules and styles to meet students needs during the coronavirus pandemic.
An exterior view of Robert F Wagner Middle School after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City's public school system will be shut down Monday March 16 as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 15, 2020 in New York City.
Cindy Ord | Getty Images

On March 6, New York City high school principal Matt Willie was already preparing for the worst. After watching a news report that said the city's Department of Education was preparing to close public schools amid the coronavirus crisis, Willie texted his assistant principal: "Prepare for the apocalypse."

Willie said his school, University Neighborhood High School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was about as prepared as he could hope, having started disaster prep about a week before the DOE gave its final judgement. During that time, Willie and his staff took inventory of in-school laptops, surveyed students about whether they had devices and internet connections at home ("just in case") and had already distributed some laptops to students whose parents said they were no longer comfortable sending them to school. 

But when the DOE finally announced school closures, staff still had to scramble. The decision came down on a Friday, upending the school's plans to ask students to sign out laptops from their third-period teachers.

Instead, students who needed laptops came in on Saturday before the closure went into effect. They gave their information to a staff member across a 7-foot-long table to maintain social distancing, Willie said. Then, the staffer would retrieve a laptop and put it on a different table, where the student would pick it up and sign it out. In total, the school distributed 247 laptops, spanning roughly half its student population.

Students, administrators, teachers and parents across New York City are dealing with a hasty transition to remote learning as the country's largest school district has simultaneously become the nation's epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way, they've had to count laptops, fumble with muting group video calls and rewrite class schedules to fit around a computer screen. Interviews with parents and teachers across the school system revealed how students and staff are coping with the changes and the role technology plays in this new normal. 

University Neighborhood High School Principal Matt Willie and Assistant Principals Rob Fox and and Kelly Powell served ice cream to teachers at the start of the school year prior to closures due to the coronavirus.
Matt Willie

A device for every student

The first challenge for many schools has been making sure each student has access to an internet-connected device. At Harvest Collegiate High School near Manhattan's Union Square, math teacher Julia Shube said about 50 of 450 students initially said they'd need a computer, but once it became clear the school would move to remote learning, that number doubled. 

"Even if you have a computer at home, you might have three siblings and you're going to end up vying for that computer at some point," Willie said. When his school surveyed students, 85% said they had a computer at home but almost 70% said they would still like to sign out a computer if given the opportunity. 

"That really signaled to us that we need to get ready to sign out every single one of our computers," Willie said. 

To supplement the 175,000 devices schools have already given out, the DOE said it's working with Apple and T-Mobile to provide LTE-enabled iPads to 300,000 public school students without access to devices for their school work. The agency said on its website it's receiving about 50,000 iPads a week from Apple. Its partners at IBM then set them to get them connected to the internet and activate appropriate content filters.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.
Getty Images

As of the first week of April, some students have still not received their remote learning devices, according to the DOE's timeline. The DOE said its first round of iPad shipments began the week of March 23, first to students living in shelters, then focused on those in foster care and high school. So far, 13,000 devices have been delivered to students in shelters, according to a DOE spokesperson.

Beginning Monday, the DOE will also focus on delivering to students who live in public housing, have disabilities or are multilingual learners. The DOE spokesperson said it will continue to deliver tens of thousands of devices a week until all requests are completed.

Once students have devices, they need to be able to get online. Charter Communications' Spectrum offered free broadband and Wi-Fi to families with K-12 or college students in NYC for 60 days beginning in mid-March. But Willie found there were still a few students in his school who could not take advantage of the offer because they lived in rented rooms where they couldn't access the landlord's internet. For those students, Willie distributed smartphones the school had stored and instructed them to use them as hotspots.

Some schools were even ready to resort to pen and paper. At P.S. 103 in the Bronx, teachers began making hard copies of work students could do on their own, according to pre-K teacher Katherine Myers.

For Robert Schachter, a parent of an NYC public high school student and one in college, it was the non-technical tools that proved to be the biggest challenge.

"It was running to Walmart and buying two bridge tables," said Schachter, whose family is camped out in Texas with his fiancee and her two kids. They bought a new printer and divided all corners of the house so they wouldn't be distracted by each other's Zoom calls.

Robert Schachter, a parent of an NYC public high school student and a college student, bought bridge tables so his kids could have space for remote learning while schools were closed due to the coronavirus.
Robert Schachter

Teaching over the internet

Once teachers and students have a way to connect to the internet, the next challenge is converting the classroom experience to a video conference.

Zoom has made its service free for many K-12 schools around the world and removed its 40-minute time limit on basic accounts. That's made it an easy choice for many schools that hadn't been used to video conferencing, though the service has come with its own set of privacy concerns, especially since it was built as an enterprise product, not an educational one.

A New York City student listens to daily lesson plan videos from her teacher as schools move to online learning amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

But just because classes can convene over video chat doesn't mean they'll follow the same schedule as they did in the previous world. Four NYC public school teachers interviewed for this article said they find it most important to make sure their students are able to cope with the massive disruption to their lives. 

At Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, the week is broken up between formal instruction and tutoring. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, teachers have planned to post pre-recorded lessons onto Google Classroom, a free platform where students can find and submit assignments as well as take quizzes. Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for students to conference with teachers.

"It's not the student that we're planning for, it's their family," said math teacher Kirk Schneider. "We can't tell them, 'hey you need to be in math class at 10 or computer class at 11' because we don't know who they're babysitting."

If the high school had tried to make students show up at designated times, lower-performing students would "get lost in the flood," Schneider said. Instead, he's noticed some struggling students are actually thriving with the flexible schedule.

"There's some kids that are struggling in the classroom, and they're killing it. They just needed a quiet place, they needed their own learning styles," Schneider said. "Now I have a way to reach the kids that don't necessarily want me there in front of them teaching."

Schneider said he tries to be careful about when he posts work so it doesn't get buried on the page.

"We can't give these kids any more road bumps," he said. "I can't imagine how difficult these kids' lives are, I can't make it harder."

Shube, the high school math teacher, said some of her students are struggling keeping up with the influx of emails from assignments posted on the site, so she's planning to do a lesson for her advisory students on how to organize their inboxes.

It's a whole different ball game for younger students, whose classes typically involve a lot more group interaction. 

"I Zoom with small groups," said Myers, the pre-K teacher. "They're three and four -- the mute button on Zoom? I mean, come on!"

Myers said she uses Zoom calls to let students socialize with each other, grouping together friends and letting them talk freely while checking in on how they're feeling. 

At the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, some parents asked teachers to open a Zoom meeting during lunchtime just so kids could chat with their friends, second and third grade teacher Liz Ciotti said. 

The instructional portion has been a bit more challenging. Ciotti said her students have struggled to find math and reading assignments because they don't know how to type on a keyboard.

"It has been quite ridiculous over the internet trying to tell a kid or a parent who hasn't opened the internet in the past now open a window and a tab," she said.

She's also wary of posting YouTube videos to her Google Classroom page, concerned an educational clip could "open up an impossibly dangerous rabbit hole for kids to be clicking into."

Myers uses ClassDojo to post videos of herself doing read-alouds, collect pictures of assignments and communicate with parents. She said she took home her classroom set-up and about 75 books when her school said to prepare not to come back. "If I didn't have my books I would have had nothing," she said.

Back to school

As teachers and families settle into remote learning, the question becomes: what will school look like when this is over?

"The one place I'm sort of heartened is this actually is sort of a longer-term fix," said Karen Cator, CEO of nonprofit Digital Promise, referring to "the homework gap." That's what educators call the inequity between students who have access to internet-connected devices at home and those who don't, which has had a noted impact on learning

Cator, the former director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, said the current situation has made it "an imperative" for every student to have access to the internet in their homes. 

Some teachers fear remote learning will convince students and parents that the rigid structure of physical school is no longer important. 

"It feels like it would be hard to go back to being like, 'you need to be here right on time' after doing something like this," said Shube.

Ciotti, the Washington Heights elementary school teacher, said she feared the switch to remote learning could eventually drive her out of a job. 

"Part of me deep down was like oh my goodness, are we going to find out that teachers are not necessary?" she said. "But with all these great resources, you still need the teacher to guide the kids and put them in the right place and guide them through it, so that was a nice surprise, that I'm still needed."

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